Working in a part of east London called Deptford, Haklay and his colleagues set up a community project where individuals monitored the noise pollution coming from a local scrapyard. By creating a bank of local data that showed the operation was violating noise limits, the UK Environment Agency revoked the scrapyard’s licence.
Lewis meanwhile is working with indigenous people in the Republic of Congo and Cameroon to develop data collection tools that can be used by non-literate people. In the 1990s, vast regions of forest in the Congo Basin were divided up and sold to multinational companies to mine resources. But by the mid-2000s, many of these companies wanted FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification to signify products that are from responsibly harvested and verified sources, and they turned to people like Lewis for help.
So Lewis devised ways for monitoring what the indigenous people wanted to preserve, for instance, trees from which they harvest a particularly delicious and tradable species of caterpillar. People are equipped with touchscreen devices with icons for various options like “valuable tree” that they can select and tag with GPS coordinates. “What is good is that these maps will do the talking for communities,” says Lewis.
However, there are still several fundamental issues to resolve with these types of projects. One is how you train people adequately for the task. Another is how scientists can ensure that the methods used and quality of data are robust enough when people have a clear stake in the outcome.
Making data-collection protocols, instruments and analysis as robust as possible can overcome malicious or accidental bias, says Haklay. “The importance of smartphones as scientific instruments cannot be underestimated in this context: GPS provides accurate time and good location; phone pictures provide location and timestamps (which are unlikely to be tampered by non-literate and technically challenged users), which provide you with evidence; and when they communicate with air pollution sensors or a microphone about noise level, for instance, you have a time stamped observation from an instrument.”
Another concern is that there are simply not enough potential volunteers available. CCC’s Grey points out that with only 40% of the population of China hooked up to the internet so far, that means there’s potentially another half-billion about to join. Already a number of citizen science projects are trying to harness the large number of potential volunteers in China, and the first project devised by Chinese scientists launched in 2010. Researchers at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, with the support of IBM’s World Community Grid, set up Computing for Clean Water to use computing power from more than 50,000 volunteers to virtually design better low-cost, low-pressure water filters, which will hopefully make water purification cheaper and more accessible.
And this interest will only increase, says Grey. “I did the maths, and every second another Chinese person joins the Internet for the first time – and all of them could potentially donate computing time on their laptop or tablet or phone,” he says. “So, when someone says there are just not enough possible volunteer computers out there, I say that at one new Chinese internet user per second, don’t worry.”